Crafting (New) Realities: Travel Junkie Diary Founder Michelle Karam On Turning A Blog To A Business
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It may have started out as a blog, but Michelle Karam always believed that Travel Junkie Diary (TJD) would grow into something bigger- and today, seven years after its launch, the digital platform has evolved into becoming a travel-centered enterprise with a number of different business streams. But this didn’t happen by chance though-according to Karam, who had 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry before setting up TJD, this was her plan right from the start. “I had boxes to check, and every year, I would reach a milestone in my career,” Karam reveals. “It began as a blog, where I shared inspiring stories from my travels, advice, and most of all, my passion for photography."
"Soon, other travelers started sharing their diaries on my platform as well. It became a hub for travelers in the region to exchange stories and trade advice on everything travel-related. I calculated that my first year of launching TJD the blog would not generate any income, so I had put some of my savings into learning how to use Wordpress, basic coding, social media, and investing in a good quality camera.” By the second year, as TJD found itself being recognized as a platform of repute in the market at large, Karam went on to register it as a licensed company, and she soon found herself working with hotel brands on their digital marketing campaigns, as well as on their events for new openings.
In 2015, when TJD was in its fourth year, Karam unveiled Travel with TJD, which she started out as curated press trips for brands, and this saw her working with the likes of Emirates Airline, Virgin Atlantic, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Kenya Tourism Board, Seychelles Tourism Board, and many others. The positive feedback Karam got for Travel with TJD led her to want to open it up to more people, and that essentially resulted in the creation of the TJD Series of trips, which promise people who join them one-of-a-kind experiences in locations that are usually off the beaten path when it comes to the travel landscape.
Karam, along with her business partner Dennis Stever (a photography enthusiast with over 10 years of experience in coaching, leadership training, and facilitation of team events), have currently conceptualized TJD Series as group trips to remote destinations in the earth’s polar regions- these excursions have, so far, taken people to countries like Finland, Norway, and Iceland, and yes, more such locations are being explored for newer instalments of these events. “TJD Series is an experiential adventure movement,” Karam says. “It brings to life the passion for destinations filled with nature, history, and places where only few people venture to go. TJD Series was born from the desire to foster people’s respect and togetherness on our earth, and take them to places they never knew existed.”
It may sound like a dreamy premise, but the Arctic destinations that Karam and Stever chose to launch TJD Series were selected with an eye toward the appeal of (and demand for) such locales for travelers in the Middle East. “We believe we have become experts on travelling the Arctic, and the GCC has seen a significant rise in solo travelers craving new adventures who are looking for likeminded people to share these experiences with,” Karam says.
“Thanks to the success of the blog and my social media presence, based on consistency and trust, people started to turn to us to take them on those polar journeys. The number of guests joining grew each trip; more people would share their incredible experiences in a positive way, and by the end of every year, we would have tripled the total number of guests. That attracted tourism boards, travel brands, travel agencies, and others to grab the opportunity to work with TJD, and see immediate return on investment. TJD has built a community of travelers through social media and word of mouth.”
Stever adds, “The GCC is a fascinating market in regard to travel and tourism, as there is a large appetite for the Arctic weather destinations. If you look at other markets in Europe and North America, we see more of an interest in tropical or warm vacation destinations. With the GCC countries, our guests are interested in escaping the heat, and experiencing these unique Arctic climates. Travel with TJD offers the opportunity to partners and investors to expand into the GCC market, through our marketing and social media presence, and seeing instant ROI through bookings. Every year, we see a growth in the number of guests joining our TJD Series by 55%! Every year, we continue to build on our business by adding new experiences and polar destinations.”
It’s not just the polar trips though- TJD’s other revenue-generating stream is TJD Consultancy, which offer consulting to travel brands and help create their marketing campaigns, which includes events and openings for clients. “TJD’s financial success is based on three segments, and we are a customer-funded business,” Karam notes. “The three elements I credit to our financial security are the brand’s trust and loyalty to the readers and followers, TJD Consultancy’s ecosystem, and TJD Series. All three play a major role in managing our finances and growing our brand. We are currently not fundraising, but we aren’t ruling out any expansion plans for the future, including seed investments and more.”
And Karam and Stever have got bigger plans for the enterprise in the future. “With the success and growth of our TJD Series, we are continuously looking for new destinations,” Stever says. “The Scandinavian countries have become frequent stops, with two to four trips planned in Norway, Sweden, and Finland annually, with a total of 16/18 trips a year. At our current pace, we plan to offer two new destinations each year. With the end of 2019 fast approaching, we’ve launched our first trip to Iceland in October, followed by Svalbard and Greenland opening in 2020.”
Karam adds, “We plan to keep growing the number of trips, and undertaking more inspection trips. The more inspection trips and exploring we do on our own, the more opportunities we have to create new TJD Series for guests to join. We also just launched our new visual brand identity. It is created by Joe Fish, and it is inspired by the Viking symbol to ‘create your own reality.’ We plan to launch our own merchandise for TJD, our book, and soon, down the line, invest in our own property in the Arctic to bring guests to.”
Now, it is obviously the people who sign up to be a part of these TJD Series trips that get to take in the sheer splendor contained in the itineraries that Karam and Stever put together, but the rest of us can also treat ourselves to glimpses of these experiences through TJD’s social media channels. I follow Karam on Instagram, where, besides sharing stunning photographs of various travel destinations on a rather regular basis, she maintains a rather personal, intimate feel for not just her posts, but also on all of her interactions with fans and followers.
While she has consistently been lauded for her influential social media presence, Karam has continued to preach (and practice) authenticity on all of her platforms, and that has, in turn, given her a loyal audience that remain attuned to all of what she gets up to. Having said that, Karam has always shied away from overtly utilizing the influencer tag for herself, and that seems to have been the right decision in hindsight, given the ongoing debate about the efficacy of influencers in the social realm.
“I think that people over use the word influence a lot, and we all know that. I do believe our photography and stories on social media inspire a lot of people to want to join our TJD trips, and resharing them constantly and seeing the smiles on people’s faces influences a lot of new potential guests. A lot of solo travelers were left inspired by our trips, and allowed them to take that leap of faith, and travel with complete strangers. I think today, the debate of influencers has not directly affected my business anymore, because I have positioned myself personally and TJD from the very start as an entrepreneur.”
Karam knows what she is talking about- it’s one thing to post beautiful pictures on an Instagram account; it’s another thing altogether to keep a business running on the back of it all. When it comes to TJD, both Stever and Karam are emphatic about the work that goes on in the background that allow for those picture-perfect moments to happen. “Michelle and I are both passionate about traveling, and both of us come from an events background in hospitality and marketing, and so, we understand the pressure and time it takes to make this work,” Stever says.
“In an effort to expand routes and open more spots on our TJD trips, we’re aiming to run 16-18 group trips annually. If you factor in travel time, inspection trips, and additional marketing opportunities, we can be on the road for three months of the year, not factoring in our other commitments. One of the biggest challenges faced when running our TJD trips is probably the lack of sleep, in my opinion. During the day, we provide a full itinerary for our guests, including dogsledding, snowmobiling, and ice fishing; however, it doesn’t stop there. We make an effort to stay up for the better part of the night, with our eyes glued to the skies, hoping to see the Northern Lights. When you put all of this together, we often only have 3-4 hours for sleep.”
But Karam and Stever note that difficulties like these are par for the course- this is, after all, the business they set out to build. “I trained myself to do the job that would make me happy, and I worked out what I needed to do,” Karam points out. “It’s always hard work; some people don’t want to put the hard work, because they lack the passion perhaps, but passion is an abused word. Without it, you cannot be an entrepreneur, because when you give in to that entrepreneurial lifestyle, you lose your social life, your sleep, your weekends, and you, and those around you must be ready for it. There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for will unbalance you. But when you have passion for what you do, the reward is a thousand times better!”